The recent focus in Jamaica on the squalid state of much of the environment is really part of a deeper reconsideration of what the country has become. I make no excuse for not seeing all things Jamaican through rose-coloured glasses. When I look around I often see the stunning natural beauty that is usually just a glance away. Of course, if you live in a gully community or in what has become of housing in downtown Kingston that glance won’t give you one of the many stunning vistas, but you really don’t have to go far for my point to be true.

By contrast, you also don’t need to look far to see the opposite side, of wanton squalour.

I was driving from Mandeville to Spanish Town yesterday, with some people who lived in that city. As we left the highway, we passed some narrow streets lined with part of Jamaica’s standard ‘wallpaper’. “Zinc fence. Where would we be without it?” I commented. “I hate it! Disgusting! They should tear it down,” came a reply from one of the women in the back. I added that natural wood boarding would have more visual appeal, to me. At the back of my mind was the thought that the zinc was durable and maybe more resistant to the worst that nature could throw.

Zinc fencing has come to symbolize many aspects of Jamaica gone bad. It’s the sign of ‘ghetto’ living: marking the ramshackled housing thrown up amidst established dwellings.

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The government agrees that these unsightly structures should go, and has a Zinc Fence Removal Project underway. It’s focus is on the Corporate area, with J$42 million allocated. But, as the Gleaner pointed out last year, this idea was first trumpeted by PM Patterson in the 1990s. Now, it gets rolled out in 2013/14, and in good ‘tribal’ politics fashion, gets going in the current PM’s constituency, with lovely new block walls and gates in Greenwich Farm. Naturally, the rest of the country could feel cynical about this. “Her people” are clearly what’s meant by “my people”. But, let’s try to walk past that.

The essence of calls for ‘national clean up’ is to restore a level of civic pride into Jamaica. We are not all caring citizens. Many people are so used to garbage in their midst that they ’embrace’ it. I noticed yesterday, while driving, a group of young ladies standing on a street talking. About one yard from them was a pile of garbage. Now, I know that garbage tends to smell and usually one moves away from the offending smell. But, if it’s become part of your essential being–pun, partly intended–you just inhale and carry on.

I was with the 8000 or so runners and walkers last Saturday during the Digicel 5k. An early part of the route crosses a gully. It stinks. In the dark of night, it seems to smell worse. Almost every participant let out a “Eeeeeewwwww!” as it was crossed. Clearly, a bunch of privileged people, who are not used to that.

My daughter and I took in the setting sun before the race started. We looked into the harbour and saw a pile of debris. It included a dead dog. “Why is it blue?” she asked. I used the teaching moment.

We live with detritus too much.

What nature has bestowed in us, we are glibly destroying, and accepting ugly rather than striving for beauty. Some of the attempts at ‘beautification’ are awful, because we try to mould man-made things into appealing forms, rather than let nature help us. Or, we let nature run rampant rather than tame it. That’s good news for the politicians, who use these opportunities to ‘give work’. The real jobs we could create could simply be constant environmental maintenance.

I spent two weeks with friends in France, in La Rochelle. The city prides itself on being floral. When I pointed this out to my friends, they were surprised. They take it for granted that they have walkways, bike paths, roadways, lined with trimmed shrubs and flowers. People stroll and ride and lie down on the grass in parks, reading, playing cards, drinking beer and wine, having picnics.

IMG_0189.JPG Admitted, they do not have our constant heat or other tropical issues. But, their outdoor spaces are looked on with pride. The streets are shockingly clean. But, these are results of deciding to tackle people’s disregard for their surroundings. It is a work in progress that began a few decades ago. So, Jamaica is not lost.

Except that we struggle to get started. Look from PJ’s idea to start: nearly 20 years. We take too long to make our first steps. Then take too long to make the next. Look around at unfinished structures. We, also, have let thrive the villains who look to destroy, by stealing and coopting materials. We let poverty and lack of money be the excuse for depriving people of what is theirs.

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I commented last week that the PM missed a huge opportunity to mobilize the nation behind the clean up idea. Instead of going to her constituency first, she should have tried going into an Opposition area. That would have shown that “my people” are not just “her people”. But, the tribes are so entrenched that one could hear the questions and criticisms that would have caused. The notion of “our time” is made real by depriving those who do not support us. A zero-sum game, played out with people’s lives and livelihoods.

A point has to come when people cut through that kind of mentality. Sickness has a way of showing that we are all similarly vulnerable. I don’t wish sickness on anyone, but if that’s part of the cure, then let it spread.

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